Every lame-duck president sees challenges from geopolitical foes, but few have tried to befriend those very enemies.
Come one, come all, America’s lame-duck president has been preparing for this moment since 2009.
After taking office President Obama launched the Russia reset policy; he began negotiations with Iran after siding with the mullahs against democratic activists; in 2012 he announced the Asia pivot strategy; and from the very beginning of his presidency he apologized to anybody who would listen. In other words, Obama shouted “weakness” from the rooftops. Our geopolitical foes heard it loud and clear, and now we must deal with the consequences.The Asia pivot made some sense in one respect. We should face down a rising China, but the unspoken corollary was that the U.S. would turn its back on Europe to do so. Between the pivot and the reset, Vladimir Putin so clearly understood the message that he now brazenly interferes with our elections. Plus, Obama failed to face down China. Beijing got the message, and we must deal with their hijinks in the South China Sea, as a result.
Now, Iran wants in on the action. Last Saturday, Tehran threatened to shoot down two U.S. spy planes in international airspace above the Persian Gulf. The planes were probably flying what’s called a “freedom of navigation” (FON) mission.
By definition, FON missions never leave international airspace. They simply assert the right of other countries to use that airspace — to be where they are. By challenging them, Iran asserted the right to close international airspace and obviously felt that kicking the U.S. around was a safe bet. FON missions are neither new nor provocative; countries have performed them using their navies for centuries.
These flights presented nothing new, threatening, or out of the ordinary, but like moths to a flame, challengers flock to Obama’s policies. Just as China and Russia have done, Iran saw an opportunity to push us around.
Obama could not undo the mistakes of his first term even if he were willing to do so, so what can we do now? A few things but do not hold your breath as they would require him unwinding his foreign policy legacy achievements, such as they are.
1. Stop the ransom payments. Self-explanatory.
2. When Tehran cheats on the nuclear deal, call them on it.
When they test a nuclear-capable missile; when they get caught soliciting proscribed nuclear technology; when Tehran creates shell procurement companies to buy illicit material, call them on it.
In the past, Secretary Kerry promised that we would know should Iran cheat (“I have faith and confidence that we will know exactly what they’re doing during that period of time. And if they decide to try to cheat, we will know it, and there are plenty of options available to us. That I have complete faith and confidence in”). The State Department insists that Iran continues to toe the line. Of course, what Iran learns from this nonsense is that it can get away with anything — like threatening to shoot down our planes in international waters.
3.The White House needs to be aware of its policies. Iran now feels so comfortable with its support for Syrian President Assad that it glorifies Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps casualties. It even created a photo backdrop at a book fair so families can pose throwing hand grenades in a Syrian street. It is safe to say that Iran does not worry about a U.S. backlash for supporting the genocidal dictator. Remember, it is still Obama’s official policy that Assad must go.
This is not to say that the U.S. should go take out Assad. Rather, the White House should write policies it intends to fulfill. Not doing so emboldens troublemakers. The White House writes policies and then treats them like a doormat. Others have noticed.
4. The White House needs to get its act together in Asia. It’s a big task, but when Iran sees no U.S. pushback after China begins treating the South China Sea as an internal lake, they learn from the precedent.
These are just a few examples, but you can see how Iran might believe that bullying our aircraft carries no consequence. Obama radiates weakness.
The White House writes policies and then treats them like a doormat. Others have noticed.
The aircraft crew distinguished themselves — they called Iran’s bluff — which is easy for me to say from the cheap seats and not in an unmaneuverable aircraft with no parachute. In the future, the Navy could escort the surveillance planes with fighter jets, but beyond that, the situation does not lend itself to too many short-term fixes beyond what the Navy is almost certainly doing. The White House could sanction Tehran, though we will be lucky if the administration even refers the incident to the UN Security Council.
Instead, this is a long-term issue … new president long-term.
Not to be fatalistic, but we need to steel ourselves for a rough four months. Every lame-duck president fields challenges from geopolitical competitors. What is unusual in this case is that this lame-duck president first tried to befriend them and has littered his presidency with failed foreign policies that invite challenges. Get used to this.